What are the psychotherapy techniques for post-traumatic stress?

Post-traumatic stress is a psychological disorder associated with a traumatic experience that produces sequelae that can last for years or even decades if not treated by professionals. That is why it is important to know its characteristics to go to therapy as soon as its symptoms appear, without letting time pass and the psychopathology consolidates in the memory system of those who suffer from it.

In this article we will talk about post-traumatic stress disorder and the psychotherapeutic techniques used for its intervention.

What is post-traumatic stress?

Post-traumatic stress disorder first appears as an independent disorder in the third edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Manual (DSM III). Currently, DSM 5 states that a patient’s diagnosis requires meeting at least 4 criteria or symptom categories in order to diagnose PTSD. Symptoms will also need to be present for more than a month and, as with other disorders, that the situation generates discomfort in the subject or that its functionality is affected.

The diagnostic criteria are as follows:

  • There must be the presence of a borderline experience by which the life of the subject or of a very close individual is in danger.
  • Reexperimentation: The patient exhibits intrusive thoughts related to the trauma.
  • Avoidance: The subject avoids stimuli or people who remind him of the traumatic event.
  • Negative cognitions and affections: Mood and thought pattern become more negative after the traumatic event.
  • Hyperactivation: increased bodily activation related to the traumatic event.

It is believed that the trauma that triggers PTSD is actually the imprint that the traumatic experience leaves in the emotional memory of the person, that is to say the part of our mental activity devoted to storing and evoking the emotional charge linked to a fact that we have experienced (which cannot be expressed directly in words). As this memory content is dysfunctionally “archived”, it leads to anxiety attacks and emotional imbalances when it arises in the form of flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, etc.

Psychotherapy techniques used for post-traumatic stress disorder

Now that we know better what the characteristic symptoms of PTSD are and the alterations they cause, let’s see what the intervention of a psychologist can be in the face of this type of mental disorder. Different types of pharmacological and psychological treatments have been triedbeing the latter those that have shown greater effectiveness since they are not limited to alleviating the symptoms in the short and medium term.

Thus, here we will see the most used psychotherapy techniques before PTSD and which allow to intervene on the root of the problem (well or why they should all be used in a therapeutic process, it all depends on the specialties of the psychologist and the needs of the person who needs professional help).

1. Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is one of the most effective techniques. As the name suggests, it is usually repeated and prolonged exposure of the subject to trauma-related stimuli or symptoms.

The presentation can be done both live and in imagination, depending on the type of traumatic event and depending on where we are in the intervention, the preparation of the patient. In general, live exposure is more effective, but generates more rejection, as it is often more uncomfortable and difficult to deal with.

2. Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy is based primarily on dialogue and talking, and is one of the most widely used resources in the field of humanistic psychology. It aims to help the person reinterpret their past without getting caught up in a dysfunctional bias of negativity and pessimism, so that they are able to reconnect with the experience of living a meaningful life. In this way, it helps the person to stop assuming that they are destined to stagnate in their progress towards happiness and to suffer, and to be able to continue participating in an exciting life project that can be the protagonist.

3. Treatment of rapid eye movements, desensitization and reprocessing

This technique, known as EMDR for its acronym in English, has as its main purpose re-process the traumatic experience to make memory more properly integrated into the memory system. This intervention consists of 8 phases, some more important than others, but the result is that the traumatic experience ceases to have the power to emotionally destabilize the person to the point of making it a problem.

4. Meditation and mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness training have been used primarily for the purpose of reduce the risk of relapses and increase patient resiliencethat is, the ability to face and overcome negative events and to continue to develop functionally. These therapeutic resources contribute to the person being able to focus on the present moment from an attitude of acceptance, letting go of the obsessive thoughts that lead to psychological brooding and constant re-experiencing of trauma.

5. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

This therapy is primarily used for patients with borderline personality disorder, although early studies with this intervention have reported positive results in subjects who show poor emotional regulation caused by trauma, as a pre-exposure treatment.

6. Combined use of relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques are not used independently, but are applied in conjunction with another intervention such as exposure or EMDR. In this way, its effectiveness has been tested using it as an adjuvant technique, and its application in general is not recommended in isolation. On the other hand, they are usually simple exercises, so the patient can easily incorporate them into their daily routine.

7. Cognitive therapy

The main objective of this therapy is to alter maladaptive cognitive patterns related to the traumatic event to reduce discomfort. One of the most used strategies in this context is cognitive restructuring, which is directly related to the modification of dysfunctional beliefs and interpretations of the patient’s problem. This modification of beliefs may aim to achieve more functional beliefs related to trauma or disorder.

Efforts will also be made to reduce worry, repetitive negative thoughts, dissociation and difficulty concentrating.

The mode of intervention generally consists in reducing the avoidance of the traumatic memory, in order to be able to accept and thus succeed in reducing the impact.

Would you like to benefit from professional psychological help?

In Adhara Psychology We work treating people of all ages from humanistic psychology, intervening in trauma and all kinds of emotional disorders that make it difficult to progress towards physical and mental well-being.

We can help you in person at our center in Madrid or online via video call.

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